There are different ways to honk a car horn, ya know?
You know what I’m talking about. There’s the quick, attention-getting beep to say hi, let someone know the light has changed, make them aware of your presence etc etc.. Then there’s the other kind. Long, drawn out and aggressive, with a lot to say.
It was windy. Blowing straight at me for hours. No matter which way the road turned it was bearing down on me full force. At least it was sunny. Every stroke felt heavy as the shifty speed of the wind made a consistent cadence impossible. Sometimes the force would catch my front panniers and push me left or right a bit. Not so much to be unsafe but certainly difficult to hold a straight line.
The sound of the horn was brief. Far away. It stopped quickly.
Then it was closer. When it got closer and didn’t stop I felt sudden tension and anxiety building up. Was something wrong with my bike? Was I doing something unsafe?
Cars were coming from the opposite direction and the horn continued. As it sped past me, the driver cut close in front of me. Not dangerous, but not polite and certainly not courteous. I gave him a hand gesture. There’s one in Italy that means “what are you doing?” or “why?”
About ten minutes up the road I pull into town. I look around, pedal uphill and find a place to get coffee. The streets are busy with people and cars and buses and scooters. The buildings are tall and colorful and everywhere. As I get to the corner where I’ve decided to stop, I see that there are many people outside hanging around. Some look Italian. Some don’t. They all look at me. I’m getting used to this stare when I enter a town so I think nothing of it.
I notice the car that honked at me. It is parked in front of my intended destination and the driver is outside. He notices me and sees I recognize his car. He’s wearing jeans and a white shirt under a black and shinyish waist-length jacket. He has dark complexion and black hair parted to the side. I notice immediately the aggression in his eyes and quickly I become uneasy. His black mustache lifts as he begins to speak. His eyes are staring directly into me. He hasn’t shaved in a few days. His hands aren’t clean. I notice the dirt on them as he points a finger at me and speaks in Italian.
I try to tell him that I don’t understand and that I speak English. It seems to make him upset. People are close, it’s very busy. People walk around us and brush past us. People are looking at us. He continues and I hear his voice elevate and the tension in his tone stiffen. I don’t know what he’s saying but his eyes are getting sharper with each sentence.
It happens quickly. I don’t recognize it right away. This is the first time I’ve been in a moment like this and I am caught off guard, and he knows it.
It was just a glance.
I’m staring at him, mouth agape and nervous.
He continues. Louder and meaner.
Then it clicks. Faster than I can think. Faster than I can process. Faster than I can reason. Time slows down. I’m not thinking. I’m just reacting. It was the glance. It comes back to me like a flash in the front of my mind. People are moving and brush by, but some aren’t. He glanced at them and now in slow motion I glance at them too. I can’t hear him anymore. Everything is quiet. My eyes dart from hand, to arm, to eye, to mouth, to hand, to finger and in an instant I see the ruse. I see their pinhole eyes feeding on my bicycle. On my bags. On my pockets. I see their fingers starting to curl, ready to grasp. I see their adrenalin building as they prepare to run. I see their feet, one pointed at me, one pointed in the direction of their escape. And now I see him and now I see me. He’s the distraction. I’m the mark. As I look back at him, he glances at them and then at me. He’s sees what I’ve discovered.
I push him directly in the chest.
I turn around fast and heave my bicycle as hard as I can and start to run. I jump on and am amazed at how little time it takes. My heart is pumping fiercely. My shoes click into the pedals and I push hard.
I was the mark.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This story is a work of fiction. I wrote it because I wanted to express a fear I’ve had around traveling. of going into certain cities. People have warned me about certain places and it’s made me tense and anxious to even be somewhat nearby. One city, which I won’t name, was the subject of confirming laughs and serious warning at its mere mention. Time and again people would reliably say “OOOOH! Yeah, stay away from that place. It’s only trouble that you will find there.”
I don’t like being afraid. Sometimes I feel so vulnerable when I get into a new place. I’m alone and everything I have is on this bike. I can’t seem to shake this fear that if someone decided to accost me and steal what they could grab, there’s very little I could do to stop it.
I’ve become more confident entering cities. I’ve also accepted that while fear helps me stay alert and vigilant, I’ve already got enough baggage on my bike and I don’t need to carry anymore in my mind.